Psychologists compare learning achievement with and without stress

August 8, 2012

Stressed and non-stressed persons use different brain regions and different strategies when learning. This has been reported by the cognitive psychologists PD Dr. Lars Schwabe and Professor Oliver Wolf from the Ruhr-Universität Bochum in the Journal of Neuroscience. Non-stressed individuals applied a deliberate learning strategy, while stressed subjects relied more on their gut feeling. "These results demonstrate for the first time that stress has an influence on which of the different memory systems the brain turns on," said Lars Schwabe.

The data from 59 subjects were included in the study. Half of the participants had to immerse one hand into ice-cold water for three minutes under video surveillance. This stressed the subjects, as hormone assays showed. The other participants had to immerse one of their hands just in warm water. Then both the stressed and non-stressed individuals completed the so-called task. The subjects looked at playing cards with different symbols and learned to predict which combinations of cards announced rain and which sunshine. Each combination of cards was associated with a certain probability of good or bad weather. People apply differently complex strategies in order to master the task. During the weather prediction task, the researchers recorded the brain activity with MRI.

Both stressed and non-stressed subjects learned to predict the weather according to the symbols. Non-stressed participants focused on individual symbols and not on combinations of symbols. They consciously pursued a simple strategy. The MRI data showed that they activated a brain region in the medial temporal lobe - the hippocampus, which is important for long-term memory. Stressed subjects, on the other hand, applied a more complex strategy. They made their decisions based on the combination of symbols. They did this, however, subconsciously, i.e. they were not able to formulate their strategy in words. The result of the brain scans was also accordingly: In the case of the stressed volunteers the so-called striatum in the mid-brain was activated - a brain region that is responsible for more unconscious learning. "Stress interferes with conscious, purposeful learning, which is dependent upon the hippocampus," concluded Lars Schwabe. "So that makes the use other resources. In the case of stress, the striatum controls behaviour - which saves the achievement."

Explore further: Keeping one's eyes on the goal -- despite stress

More information: L. Schwabe, O. Wolf (2012): Stress modulates the engagement of multiple memory systems in classification learning, Journal of Neuroscience, doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1484-12.2012

Related Stories

Keeping one's eyes on the goal -- despite stress

November 28, 2011
Stressed people fall into habits and their behaviour is not goal-directed. That the neurotransmitter norepinephrine plays a decisive role here is now reported in the Journal of Neuroscience by scientists from Bochum led by ...

Force of habit: Stress hormones switch off areas of the brain for goal-directed behaviour

July 25, 2012
Cognition psychologists at the Ruhr-Universität together with colleagues from the University Hospital Bergmannsheil (Prof. Dr. Martin Tegenthoff) have discovered why stressed persons are more likely to lapse back into ...

Stress contributes to cognitive declines in women with breast cancer, researcher says

April 11, 2012
Women undergoing treatment for breast cancer can experience cognitive declines, such as decreased verbal fluency or loss of memory and attention. Often experienced by patients undergoing chemotherapy, the declines have become ...

Recommended for you

Gene immunotherapy protects against multiple sclerosis in mice

September 21, 2017
A potent and long-lasting gene immunotherapy approach prevents and reverses symptoms of multiple sclerosis in mice, according to a study published September 21st in the journal Molecular Therapy. Multiple sclerosis is an ...

Neuron types in brain are defined by gene activity shaping their communication patterns

September 21, 2017
In a major step forward in research, scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) today publish in Cell a discovery about the molecular-genetic basis of neuronal cell types. Neurons are the basic building blocks that ...

Highly precise wiring in the cerebral cortex

September 21, 2017
Our brains house extremely complex neuronal circuits whose detailed structures are still largely unknown. This is especially true for the cerebral cortex of mammals, where, among other things, vision, thoughts or spatial ...

Your neurons register familiar faces, whether you notice them or not

September 21, 2017
When people see an image of a person they recognize—the famous tennis player Roger Federer or actress Halle Berry, for instance—particular cells light up in the brain. Now, researchers reporting in Current Biology on ...

Faulty cell signaling derails cerebral cortex development, could it lead to autism?

September 20, 2017
As the embryonic brain develops, an incredibly complex cascade of cellular events occur, starting with progenitors - the originating cells that generate neurons and spur proper cortex development. If this cascade malfunctions ...

Strategy might prevent infections in patients with spinal cord injuries

September 19, 2017
New research led by The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center found a potential therapeutic strategy to prevent infections in patients with spinal cord injuries.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.